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Wills: emergency calls should be fielded locally

Councillor Jonathan Wills.

A COUNCILLOR has called for a new centre to handle all local emergency services calls amid continued public frustration at having to phone Inverness-based operators who lack the local knowledge to deal swiftly with enquiries.

Jonathan Wills made the plea for a Shetland-based emergency line during Monday’s community safety and resilience board meeting in Lerwick Town Hall.

At present, islanders dialling 999 (or 101 for the police) are diverted to Inverness, but Wills said his plan would allow such calls to be fielded by people armed with vital knowledge of local place names and communities. 

“The logic of a national police force is quite inescapable in a country as small as Scotland,” he said, “but I think there’s a very good case for having a local emergency call centre.

“They’d go to someone who is based in the community and knows the difference between the various Sandwicks, and knows Bressay from Bursay. They would obviously need to be trained to a national standard.”

He felt there could be financial savings by reducing the amount of “wasted time” and called for a feasibility study to be conducted, which would examine the economics of setting up such a call-handling centre.

Board chairman Alastair Cooper said he felt there was a case for wider “co-location” of emergency services’ stations within Shetland that would result in “economies of scale, more efficient buildings that are less costly to maintain, and the opportunity to co-locate some of the calls services”.

“The big problem we have,” he continued, “is we don’t have a site in Lerwick currently where you could co-locate a number of the services.”

Scottish Fire & Rescue Service local senior officer Billy Wilson said an “immense” amount of investment would be required for a call-handling centre and said that should not be underestimated.

Wilson stressed he was not trying to “stymie” the wishes of the board, and he understood the concerns about the absence of local knowledge possessed by those in Inverness-based control rooms.

Wills said that every time the issue was raised, there was “some new bureaucratic objection to it”, and he was not going to accept that.

“I’m an elected councillor, and the people I represent want this to happen,” he said. “They pay taxes and they pay everyone’s wages in this room. A simple system [with] emergency calls rerouted to a local centre… with modern technology it’s not difficult.”

Shetland’s chief police inspector Lindsay Tulloch said that a 24-hour call handling service would need a minimum of eight staff, with two working at any given time. Three individual command-and-control systems (police, fire and ambulance) would have to be converted into a single compatible one.

“It’s quite a significant resource that you’re looking at securing locally in this command area, and you’d need to look at replicating that around the country,” he said.

The board agreed to speak to Shetland Islands Council to clarify whether call centres were a matter which fell outwith the local authority’s community planning remit before deciding whether to commission further research into the subject.

MEANWHILE, a staff shortage is preventing Lerwick Police Station from being able to open until midnight every day, the isles’ police chief has explained.

Tulloch said the Market Street station’s opening hours were “not what I hoped they would be by this time of year”. Instead of opening from 8am until midnight every day, the station is closed to the public at 6pm each evening.

The chief inspector explained that the station required three members of staff to fulfil a 16-hour day. But, having recruited two new workers, another individual handing in his notice had left the station short of capacity.

Cooper pointed out that with gas plant workers being paid off by Petrofac, now might be a good time for the police to be recruiting.

Tulloch said recruitment and a “rigorous vetting process” had to be undertaken, but he was hopeful of having someone in place to allow the station hours to be increased by the end of January.

Meanwhile, councillor Wills called for Police Scotland to ensure resources were available to restore a “round-the-clock, year-round police office open in Lerwick”.

Tulloch said that to operate a 24-hour cycle would require a minimum of four staff, and with the limited operational budget in Shetland he would not look to prioritise greater opening hours at the expense of a police officer’s salary.

Wills stressed he was making “no criticism of what’s been attempted locally”, but wanted Police Scotland to stump up the necessary cash.

He said “enormous” savings were possible by having a single police force for Scotland, but that “in no way precludes having a local station every day round the year where, for example, women who are being assaulted can find refuge”.

Councillor Allison Duncan complained that the Scottish Government had announced its intention to give £12 million in overseas aid over the next four year, but “can’t find money to keep a police station open”.

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